Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski has completed a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was one of 50 semi-finalists (out of 5,000 entrants) in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She has written book reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books and belongs to the James River Writers Club, Backspace, the Northern Virginia Writers Club, and the Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She recently had the honor of judging entrants in the 2012 Maryland Writers’ Association “Great Beginnings” novel contest.
Interview with Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
Where did the story that became Still Life with Aftershocks come from?
On lunchtime walks around my office in Northwest DC, I came upon a house on Church Street that was set back from the other houses behind a brick wall, not unlike the one I visualized in The Secret Garden as a child. I’d pass the house and imagine who might live there, trying to peer into the windows to see what kind of things these people owned, how they lived. Now I’m glad I could never see in so I was able to create the setting that would perfectly suit my characters.
How did the characters come to life?
They’re so real to me now that it’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t exist. The idea for Henry, my protagonist’s brother, came from The Secret Garden. I imagined an invalid, hidden behind the wall, and it came to me that he had AIDS, not as it exists today, but the disease of the early epidemic when a diagnosis was a death sentence. It was a time when people had no words for what was happening; a real-life apocalypse.
Where did Mariah come from? She’s a sort of good girl with a snarky streak …
Originally she was a composite, a mash-up of two friends, but very quickly, that husk fell away and Mariah started telling me what she was feeling as her world came apart. She’s arty and bohemian to Henry’s conservative Brooks Brothers solidity. Impulsive, a tad unformed, she has serious man problems, but also a good heart and a thoughtful, deep, core. Her development is the heart of the novel, a delayed coming-of-age story.
You talk as if you know them in real life.
I do! That’s the most amazing thing about the writing process: when your characters come alive on the page—or somewhere—independent of your conscious manipulation. You simply watch the story unfold and take dictation.
Mariah can’t catch a break at work, can she?
I’m fascinated by situations in which a person’s work life mimics the struggle she’s having in her personal life. Central to both Mariah and Henry’s experiences is that important people in their lives have used power inappropriately, crossed a line. The dynamic at Mariah’s office echoes the tensions she felt with their estranged parents and is a major factor in bringing forward her memories of childhood trauma.
This novel looks at family life from an unusual perspective. Henry and Mariah have been estranged from their parents for years, yet they’ve created their own family together.
This story is certainly about family dysfunction, but also the healing power of adapting love to unusual circumstance. Mariah and Henry’s parents are strong, creative, accomplished people, but they’re also self-absorbed and at times they flat-out neglected their kids. Mariah thinks of Henry as her protector, “More of a mother to me than my own mother ever was.” She has fused herself to Henry, “spoon like,” and when he dies she’s lost a part of herself, like an amputation.
You use humor in your work, it’s not side-splitting, appropriate to the tone of the novel, but it’s there to lift the mood now and then.
I love discovering humor in the darkest aspects of my characters’ struggles. How else do any of us survive? Henry and Mariah are both witty people suddenly plunged into a tragic and desperate situation. That doesn’t mean they lose their ability to see the irony in life and to comment on their frailties or those around them.
All this takes place in the mid-eighties. Why that time period?
In addition to the early AIDS epidemic, the eighties were a time of other interesting extremes in Washington. There was an upsurge of creativity in music with go-go and punk, a thriving art scene, and this almost royal couple in the White House who were, as far as anyone could tell, oblivious to what was going on in the city where they lived. It was an era of new prosperity and abject impoverishment living in uncomfortable proximity. Although Still Life is not “about” politics and culture, it’s infused with both and plays out in front of the epidemic’s scrim of fear.
You say Still Life, is not about politics, writ large, but this family is steeped in political ideas.
The conservative values of their grandmother have shaped Henry’s life, whereas Mariah is fed-up with politics. Too many family dinners were spoiled for her, caught between Henry’s deeply felt ideas and the equally deeply felt ones of her very liberal parents. She doesn’t agree with Henry on everything, not by a long shot, but also sees the hypocrisy in her parents’ preoccupation with the downtrodden while at times forgetting their own children.
The novel has a dark core, but is not without hope.
Life is full of betrayal, despair, and even evil, against which we all have to battle. Mariah takes some big risks in facing her fears and, in the end, breaks through to a place where she can begin to find out who she really is and create the life she wants to live, even without Henry.
What would you say your genre is? Where would your books sit on the shelf?
Women’s fiction; the novel would also find readers who enjoy literary novels; it’s a kindred spirit with Zoe Heller’s The Believers, but with a softer heart.
How does art influence your writing?
Art is central to this story, as the title attests. Mariah is committed to the arts, both as her private avocation and as a career. Unfortunately, her career is ruptured by a very smarmy boss and her own artistic expression is completely blocked when we meet her. Art, on a symbolic level, is the wellspring of love, connection, and expression we all seek in life, whether we’re visual artists or not.
What are your literary influences?
All those geniuses of psychological investigation: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene. Not that I want to imitate them, nor could I ever, but I’m drawn to their willingness to go beneath the surface, plumb motivations, pry into secrets, reveal obsessions, and tell the truth in the face of sentimentality. Contemporary idols include Sue Miller, Alice McDermott, Jane Smiley, Anne LaMott, Ian McEwan, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jonathan Franzen. They all explore the complexities of family relationships, take journeys of self-discovery and find ways to infuse commonplace events with emotional power. They also expose human weakness and hypocrisy while finding the comic in our brief existence.
Have you written all your life? What made you start?
I never had the luxury of writing full-time until recently. A powerful urge made me want to tell Mariah and Henry’s story. Now that I’ve started, I can’t stop!
What’s in the works?
Another novel is taking shape. Interestingly, a house is the frame for this one as well—a caretaker’s cottage in a public garden keeps intruding into my mind, as does a modern glass house with sleek, well-honed lines. Who’s inside? What secrets do they possess? Who do they love? How have they been hurt? A memoir about growing up in California, “Slightly Higher West of the Rockies,” is also begging to be written.